Maternal Instinct: How Does It Work?

Maternal Instinct

Parents-to-be, experienced parents, and those considering having children are all hammered with the notion that all women have maternal instincts.

Women are expected to have an instinctive desire to have children and to know how to care for them, regardless of their requirements, wants, or experiences.

And, while wanting to have children and care for them is admirable, the notion that you should want children just because you’re a woman (or that you should “intuitively” know what to do once they’re born) is impractical and causes a lot of unnecessary concern and stress.

So, what is maternal instinct, and why has it endured so long as a concept?

What does it mean to have maternal instinct?

The term instinct refers to a set behavioural response in the context of certain stimuli that is intrinsic — inborn or natural.

According to this definition, maternal instinct means that there is an innate understanding and set of caregiving behaviors that come with becoming and being a mother.

“The idea of a mother instinct can be highly overblown,” says one expert.

According to history, the maternal instinct is what drives us to want to have children and then know exactly what to do with them once they arrive. A mother, or anyone else who is responsible for a newborn or child, learns on the job through teaching, strong role models, and observation of what works and what doesn’t with each child.

From the moment a newborn is born, he or she is “learning on the job.” Many people expect maternal instinct to kick in at this point, resulting in immediate sentiments of maternal love.

Instead, these sentiments of love emerge several days after birth, with some women failing to experience them even months later.

Many mothers feel like they’ve failed if these sensations don’t appear right away or take longer to develop. They may see this as evidence of a lack of maternal instinct. In truth, kids simply require encouragement and assistance in building more open and realistic expectations.

Is it true that maternal instinct is a myth?

The concept of maternal instinct is, indeed, mostly a fantasy.

The exception is that a person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, can develop a vivid sense of their child early on and sustain it throughout their growth. However, this skill is distinct from maternal instinct.

A parent, for example, may be able to swiftly deduce the meaning of their newborn’s cries. They may also notice a shift in their toddler’s behavior that indicates a head cold. This extends into adulthood when a parent can sense trouble brewing in a teenager’s room because it is unusually silent.

This ‘maternal instinct’ of having a sixth feeling for one’s child and what they require stems from extreme intimacy and deep love, as well as hours spent with and thinking about the child. It entails recognizing the symptoms as a result of a bond you’ve formed with your child, rather than a natural grasp of motherhood. It isn’t just a problem for mothers.

Many components of maternal instinct are based on misconceptions. Experiences, temperament, and attachment style may all play a role in a mother’s intuition or intuitive knowledge of the baby’s needs.

Observation or “on-the-job” experiences are used to learn several elements of child care. “Nursing, diaper-changing, and feeding are not always naturally inborn abilities.

Parents gain parenting abilities through practice and experience as they interact and bond with their offspring. While some of this process may be “unconscious,” she claims that this does not imply that it is instinctive.

“Your brain chemistry changes when you become a parent, whether biologically or otherwise. This isn’t something that only happens to women who are about to give birth.

In fact, throughout the transition to motherhood, fathers and foster parents have increased levels of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. Bonding actions between the caregiver and the newborn cause this shift in fathers and foster parents.

Men and women are equally adept at recognizing their children’s screams. This lends credence to the concept of maternal instinct.

The amount of time a parent spends with their child is strongly tied to their ability to recognize their cries, not the parent’s gender.

What is the difference between a drive and an instinct?

To understand where the phrase “maternal instinct” originates from, we must first recognize the distinction between instinct and drive, which are not the same thing.

“A physiological drive is a motivational condition that results from a physiological need, and a need is a deprivation that underpins the drive,” according to psychology.

In contrast, an instinct is an unlearned or natural response to a signal. All members of a species have instincts, which are the result of evolutionary pressures changing behavior over time. To put it another way, drives are motivations, while instincts are actions.

Humans, for the most part, lack the instincts that most animals possess. Because most instincts are inflexible, unchanging, and triggered by a basic input, and humans are adaptable and changeable, this is the case.

We may become hungry, but instead of acting in a predictable manner, such as pecking at a dot, we may raid the refrigerator, walk to a neighboring coffee shop, or visit the supermarket.

The mechanisms that form our actions in this area are old and profound, yet it would be a stretch to call most of them instinctive when it comes to mothering.

Furthermore, given that both fathers and mothers are naturally suited to engage in attachment bonds with children, many actions could be better classified as parenting behaviors rather than mothering behaviors.

“The female body undergoes significant hormonal changes during pregnancy, and such hormone release affects behavior, perceptions, and emotions,” according to an evolutionary perspective. Bonding, connection, and attraction are aided by changes in estrogen and the release of oxytocin (the “love hormone”).

The desire to become a mother, on the other hand, is not always innate, and many healthy women do not have a “maternal drive.”

Furthermore, many people opt not to have children while still expressing the legendary maternal instinct in a variety of ways, such as as a dedicated soccer coach for school-aged children or as a giving and loving teacher.

That’s why we need to shift our perspectives and rename “maternal instinct” as “caring instinct,” so that we can perceive this behavior for what it is: everywhere. It isn’t just for mothers or even just for parents.

Also Read: Teenage Pregnancy Overview – Issue, Causes, Effects & Solutions

What is the best way to manage expectations?

The belief that women should naturally want children and immediately know how to care for them puts a lot of cultural and self-imposed pressure on them. It also undervalues a father’s or another parent’s ability to bond with their child. Parenting behaviors are equally capable of both men and mothers.

People are put under pressure by such expectations, which can lead to postpartum depression. Some women (and men) may, for example, find the newborn time less fulfilling than they had anticipated and may feel embarrassed about it. Self-blame and sadness might be exacerbated by these feelings.

To cope with this stress, mothers and mothers-to-be must remember that parenting is a learned activity with substantial influences from the past and numerous possibilities to obtain new influences and training in the present. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a good mother.


What we conceive of as mother instinct is a lie, and sustaining it makes parenting, and the decision to become a parent, much more difficult.

So let go of those unattainable goals. Parenting is a never-ending learning experience.

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